Guatemalan protesters set fire to congress building in biggest rally yet against president
Thousands demonstrate amid budget cuts in country rocked by Covid-19 and hurricanes
Demonstrators set on fire part of the congress building during a protest demanding the resignation of Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei, in Guatemala City. Photograph: Orlando Estrada/AFP via Getty Images
Thousands of people in Guatemala’s capital on Saturday staged the biggest protest yet against Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei, with some setting fire to the country’s congress, fuelled by anger over cuts in the 2021 budget just as the country reels from back-to-back storms.
Waving Guatemalan flags and signs declaring “Giammattei, resign”, demonstrators called for Mr Giammattei to veto the budget, which politicians approved at dawn last Wednesday even as Hurricane Iota was drenching parts of the Central American country still grappling with the destruction from a prior storm.
At 99.7 billion quetzals (about €10.9 billion), the budget increased public debt while cutting funding for healthcare, education, human rights and the justice system, outraging people from students to business leaders in a year marked by the economic crisis of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Congress allocated more money for their meals and didn’t allocate money to the poor people,” said Diego Herrera (25), a student.
While most protesters assembled peacefully at Guatemala City’s main square, others smashed the windows of the congress building and set fire to the interior, sending columns of orange flames rippling out, social media and Reuters images showed. A cloud of grey smoke could be seen blocks away.
A spokeswoman for San Juan de Dios General Hospital, one of the capital’s biggest hospitals, said it was treating 14 people for multiple injuries and tear gas poisoning, after clashes with police in riot gear who used tear gas to disperse crowds.
Twenty-two people were arrested amid the unrest, a court spokesman said.
“Multiple complaints of mistreatment, excessive use of force, indiscriminate use of tear gas by the Guatemalan police,” she wrote on Twitter.
Mr Giammattei had told national television on Friday he would meet with “whomever necessary” to explain the budget. As protests ramped up on Saturday, he said on Twitter he was meeting with various sectors to analyse modifications to the budget. He did not provide details on this.
Mr Giammattei’s own vice-president, Guillermo Castillo, opposed the budget plan and has suggested both men resign.
Mr Giammattei took office in January, shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, forcing lockdown measures that crimped the already weak economy.
In November, two fierce hurricanes – Eta, followed just two weeks later by Iota – killed 60 people, with many more missing, and destroyed crops that had sustained tens of thousands of families. – Reuters